Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An exhibition on torture?

In 2003 we were considering hosting an exhibition on Medieval Torture from the Museo della tortua in San Gimignano, Italy. In considering this exhibition (which we decided against taking for a range of reasons) we undertook a front-end evaluation which I am posting here as background for our planned All About Evil exhibition.

The exhibition portrayed a history of torture featuring instruments from Europe between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. When considering this exhibition we conducted a peice of research to gauge responses to the concept among potential visitors. The study combined a mixture of surveys, depth interviews and a focus group. I am posting a summary of the findings here as they relate to our All About Evil exhibition.

The research indicated that there was an audience who would be interested in visiting the exhibition. The majority of visitors surveyed (62%) indicated that they were likely to come to the museum to see an exhibition on the topic of torture. However, only 14% expressed strong likelihood, others expressed a milder intention.

The potential audience for this exhibition was very similar to audiences for other exhibitions the Museum had recently held on contemporary culture, particularly Body Art and Death: The Last Taboo. Adults over the age of 60 did not expect to attend the exhibition. In contrast, adults aged between 18 and 35 were much more likely to expect to attend the exhibition. Adults aged between 45 and 60 also expressed high levels of interest in attending the exhibition. There were also gender differences, with women somewhat more likely to indicate that they would come to see an exhibition on this subject than men.

The majority of AM visitors surveyed (96%) indicated they felt that it would be appropriate for the Australian Museum to display this exhibition. The appropriateness was sometimes judged in the context of recent AM exhibitions and several people said that an exhibition on torture was as appropriate as an exhibition on death or body art. Some respondents also felt that the Museum would treat the topic of torture with respect and avoid being sensational. This contributed to the sense that the Australian Museum would be an appropriate venue for the exhibition. The primary concern raised when respondents considered the appropriateness of this exhibition was that it was not appropriate for children and they felt it would be appropriate to display the exhibition if there was an age limit or warning.

Exhibition Content
The majority of AM visitors surveyed (52%) did not feel that this exhibition was relevant to Australian society today. They did not see this as detrimental to the exhibition or their interest in it. A third (34%) saw it as relevant. A number of these respondents mentioned that it related to topics such as detention centres and the treatment of Indigenous people in Australia and suggested that the exhibition could address these topics.

Most respondents felt that this exhibition should convey a general anti-torture message. It was expected that the exhibition would have some educational elements, so that visitors could learn about the mistakes of the past and be encouraged to prevent abuses of human rights occurring in the future. Three themes emereged. First, it was suggested that the exhibition should contrast practices in the past with those of the present. People felt that the exhibition could be related to our society today through showing the benefits we have, such as freedom of speech. Some of these people felt that it would be interesting to see how the past abuses of human rights have helped to shape society today, for example by influencing our legal system. This message was seen to be positive, as it would highlight how lucky we are in current Australian society.

Second, other respondents felt that the exhibition should be linked to the present, and that this should be done through showing that torture still exists in the modern world. These people felt that the exhibition would educate visitors about the current practices of torture. They also saw that the exhibition could have a more positive message by showing the people and organisations who are working against torture in the modern world.

Finally, some respondents felt that the exhibition should have a more historical message. The exhibition was seen as educating through showing what happened and who it happened to. Some also felt that the exhibition would reveal what people were capable of doing to each other. When asked, nearly all participants surveyed indicated that they felt an important component of the exhibition would be to include a section focusing on the way forward. This was conceived as including information about human rights activists and ways in which the use of torture could be prevented in the future. Respondents saw this as an essential part of the exhibition as it would be a way to connect the exhibition to the present and also educate visitors on how to prevent the practice of torture in the future.

The primary concern of respondents from all age groups was that children should not be able to access the exhibition freely. Most respondents who raised this as a concern felt that there should be a warning on the exhibition regarding its content and a recommended age limit. They also felt that there should be a staff member monitoring the entrance so that children or families could not inadvertently enter. A number of people indicated that the contents of the exhibition could be educational for children, particularly if they visited with their parents. These respondents felt that parental discretion should be used in deciding whether or not children could be allowed in the exhibition. Parents interviewed at the Museum were divided about whether they would take their own children to the exhibition and some thought that their children would love the exhibition. This response did not appear to relate to the age of the children being discussed.

The second major concern raised by museum visitors was a fear that the exhibition may be too graphic and have disturbing depictions of violence. Several people who expressed this concern said it was not a personal concern but may affect other people. Others indicated that this was not a problem, because the exhibition would be showing events that actually occurred therefore the depictions would not be gratuitous.

A further concern was that certain groups in society may be offended by the exhibition. This was particularly perceived to be a problem if the exhibition addressed the persecution of minorities (e.g. Protestants or Jews) through torture. Respondents emphasised the need to address these issues with sensitivity.

Finally, a substantial number of respondents said that there was nothing about the exhibition that concerned them. When this statement was followed up, most of these people indicated that they meant that they thought there was nothing that the exhibition could display that would prevent them from deciding to attend.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The witch-hunt continues

A brief history of Witchcraft

We've been busy looking at witches and witchcraft this week. Getting into some detailed research, we realise there's potential to do a whole exhibition on the topic! But here's some info about some content we think is relevant to our exhibit... with great thanks to my 'evil intern' for compiling a brief history so far...In various historical, anthropological, religious and mythological contexts, witchcraft to the believed use of certain kinds of supernatural or magical powers.

We've come across some awesome objects in the Museum collection such as Indonesian Rangda masks, representations of the widow-witch who rules evil spirits in Balinese symbolic plays. Rangda is the queen of the Leyaks. The Leyak shadow puppet offers up great imagery, as a mythological creature represented by a flying head with entrails. We're also investigating stories about the Azande divination rituals and practices throughout Sub-Saharan Africa with related items in the Museum's collection. We have a great opportunity to add a great deal of detail to documenting our collection. I'm excited! But the story of witches and witchcraft is much bigger than the AM collection items can tell alone...

The persecution of individuals as ‘witches’ is a phenomenon that has regularly recurred throughout the last millennium. Such persecution reached its zenith in medieval Europe when many individuals – especially, though not exclusively, women – who were suspected of performing ‘sorcery’, ‘magic’ or other forms of witchcraft were executed, many by being burned at the stake. Often such individuals were merely practitioners of traditional or herbal medicine; midwives; healers.

The Spanish Inquisition:
Commencing in 1478, it was responsible for the torture and death of tens or even hundreds of thousands of individuals. Its primary aim was to halt the advance of heresy, but many other ‘offences’ were included – bigamy; solicitation; homosexuality; bestiality; and ‘superstitions’ – as well as practices identified as witchcraft.

Malleus Maleficarum:
Such persecutions throughout the latter half of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries in Europe were assisted by the 1487 publication of the Malleus Maleficarum which detailed the way witches could be identified, tortured, tried, and executed. The work became an instructional handbook for Christian witch-hunters, being re-printed 36 times between its original publication in 1487 and 1669.

The Salem Witch Trials:
Such courts would be considered of dubious legality by contemporary standards, as is attested by the well-documented North American example of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93 in which 150 individuals were arrested and imprisoned, twenty-nine of whom were legally tried and convicted of witchcraft – at the time a capital felony. Nineteen of the accused were hanged; one was crushed to death; and at least five others died in prison. A year later the ‘Court of Oyer and Terminer’ which had made the convictions was dissolved, notably with one of the court men stating that, "It is better that 10 suspected witches escape than that one innocent person [is] killed."

..and the witch-hunt continues...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Corporate Evil

The notion of corporate evil is popping up a bit in workshops and these Facebook discussions so I’m getting on to thinking about that idea further.

It’s all very subjective... my blood pressure rises instantly when I think of my evil accountant holding on to my 'economic stimulus cheque' for more than a week, but on the flipside, I guess he does an OK job for my annual tax return.

Other more obvious examples of corporate evil that involve financial fraud, human rights abuses, and environmental negligence impact us not only as individuals but as a human collective when our moral structures are seemingly failed. A corporate moral good existing in the framework of globalisation and capitalism may be something of an oxymoron.

Here are some obvious examples of corporate evil I’ve been looking into:

Exxon Valdez – In March 1989 an oil tanker spilt 10.9 million gallons of crude oil on the Alaskan coastline creating the greatest oil spill in American waters. In the days immediately after the oil spill, scientists estimated mass mortalities of 1000 to 2800 sea otters, 302 seals, and an astounding 250,000 seabirds. The Local economy loss was estimated to be between up to $580 million US dollars from tourism and recreation industry. For the last 15 years the health effects for 11,000 workers who were exposed to extremely high levels of toxic benzene vapour in the initial stages of cleanup have become a major concern.

ENRON – The company had a range of claims against it ranging from rigging California’s energy prices, years of fraudulent accounting practices, as well as corruption and conspiracy including insider trading. It finally sank to bankruptcy in 2001 after audits revealed the US$ 1billion annual profit was in fact a US$153 million cash flow deficit. “The company lost $60 billion in market value, long-serving employees lost more than $2 billion in pension money and 5,600 people lost their jobs” according to a Time magazine article. The Enron collapse is coined ‘the 9/11 of the financial world’ showing how the evil acts of a few have far reaching social consequences. You can see more at

Corporate abuses don’t stop with environmental disasters and creative accounting leading to stock-market crashes. The claims against Nike for human rights abuses, including child labour, show the degree to which corporate responsibility can fail us as a population over two centuries beyond the industrial revolution.

And all in the name of progress! (?)

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this and how 'corporate evil' stories may be communicated in a museum display.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Delivering on the themes

My last post looked at the six thematic areas that emerged from participants’ feedback and responses. So, what kinds of angles and themes were they most interested in?

“Terrible Unknown”:
* Real life examples were of most interest here, particular the footage of an exorcism in Sri Lanka. The voyeuristic appeal of this showed distorted humanity before their very eyes. It also met the audiences’ desire for a real look at evil (as opposed to solely a ‘mythical’ one)
The Other:
* Subcultures are of high interest to potential audiences – they are interested in how evil ‘plays out’ in the modern world. Subcultures are a great manifestation of the other as non-conformist and, therefore, scary
Impotent Evil:
* This was a popular topic as it made the connections between ancient and contemporary evil – how have the icons of evil changed over time? It was also seen as a relatively safe way to explore evil, while unpacking some commonly accepted clich├ęs
Other aspects that were of appeal:
* Colourful, visually engaging material – objects with a strong sense of dynamism were more engaging rather than those that were ‘brown’ and ‘static’
* Moments of light relief were welcomed, examples of impotent evil that are sanitised become funny rather than scary
What ‘failed’ to engage?
* Too much religious iconography – religion is something to look at but not overdone, they return to religious class at school – yawn!
* Mythical evil has become impotent, rather than true evil and is not seen as contemporary and, therefore, relevant to them
* Amulets and other symbols of protection – only of interest if real life stories of ceremony are also shown
* Two dimensional displays are not welcomed as our audiences expect objects and interactivity not paintings

My next blog post will look at how the Museum could better articulate the ‘evil’ idea based on audience feedback so far...

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Where does Evil come from..? -as a cultural phenomenon that is.

In Lynda’s post of March 10th she talks about perceptions of the theme of Evil that were the outcomes of the Audience evaluation. Again in this post I would like to ask a few question in regard “What is Evil anyway?” but try to retrace the ‘origins’ of Evil and look at cross-cultural explanations of Evil.

Illness, death, disasters, violence, crime – they are all considered to be evil influences and threatening and disruptive of the harmony and balance most people strive for in daily life. In this broad sense of the word ‘Evil’ is a concept and reality of all peoples of all times.

Evil or negative consequences happen to everyone at some point in their lives. Consequently people of all times and places have tried to protect themselves from that evil and ward of anything that could disturb the balance and harmony in their lives. People can protect themselves by wearing amulets or offering to protective gods and spirits to watch over them, or one can take preventative medicine and hope that this winter one will not fall sick. In most religions and belief systems there are laws and moral standards that followers should adhere to to ensure a good, virtuous and pleasant life (and sometimes even after-life). Derived from this many people accept superstitions and will not walk under a ladder, or get married on a Friday the 13th.

Interestingly though is that also from all time and places are stories that recall people that have wandered off the good path, have ignored the laws and moral guidelines, and were tempted and seduced by evil forces. The most infamous account in Western thought is off course Eve’s temptation of eating the forbidden fruit and condemning mankind to fall from grace and living a sinful existence. Other stories like in the Hindu-Javanese epic where the hero Arjuna is being visited while in deep meditation by seducing temptresses, similar to the occurrence of the Sirens in Homers Odyssee, or billabong dwelling female spirit beings, yawk yawk figures, in Aboriginal Dreamtime stories from Arnhem Land which may tempt people to ignore the Law of the Land by being tempted by these mermaid-like, female spirits.
It seems that stories and interpretations of Evil are universal and thus from all times and places, so in what way is ‘Evil’ relevant to us today.

How do we interpret ‘Evil’ today and how do we look back on it in our (not so) distant past? And also in what way are historical accounts, folklore, myths, and fairytales that deal with good and evil connected to the stories of good and evil in modern-day popular culture.
More to explore it seems...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Rock 'n roll - the work of the devil!

Today I'm thinking about evil and music!

I've been inspired since I stumbled across the Louvin Brothers Satan Is Real album. As the cover attests - "Ira and Charlie pour out their beliefs and convictions born of a deep-seated religious upbringing. You will hear them raise their voices in honest opinion, in quiet beauty, then in the same breath, call out in furious outrage as they conduct, through their music, a personal crusade against the Prince of Darkness.."
And so I've discovered an entire genre of 'devil conquering evangelical country music' I didn't know existed yesterday... there a couple of really catchy guitar riffs in there too! While listening to ditties such as The drunkard' s doom and Satan's jewelled crown, my mind begins to wander...

What about evil themes throughout music history?

The history of rock 'n roll - from Robert Johnson's Me and the Devil Blues, the 1960s shakin' hips and "voodoo music" to Marilyn Manson's links with teenage suicide... What have been the defining moments, artists and songs associated with the work of the devil?

Back-masking - I've been looking at Youtube trying to find good examples of backmasking... gee there's some extreme views out there! I'd like to investigate it further though... I'm gathering a list of tracks that have 'satanic verses' when played backwards.

The sinister tone - why do all horror movie scores have that familiar creepy sound? Is there a formula for a chilling mood? Don't get me wrong I think theremins are amazing instruments and all; but.. boy they make my spine tingle!

I hope you can help shed some light!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Is there evil in us all?

All These Evil Things in Me by Martin Pueschel 2009

Hi everyone! Sorry it’s been a while, but I’m back from exhibition changeovers and museum conferences and getting into some more reading and thinking and finally writing. I'm now investigating some of the specific subject areas mentioned in Lynda's last post.

My favourite bedtime reading these days is a fantastic overview of the subject “Evil- A Primer: A history of a bad idea from Beezlebub to Bin Laden, by William Hart.

I’ve been particularly engrossed with his chapters on Survival of the Worst, Postmodern Demons, The Monster Within, and Heinous, Cruel, Depraved. It gets me thinking about the nature of evil and some of the scientific viewpoints outside of the debates on ‘morality as a human attribute' and our continually changing ethical framework.

Hart introduces us to the field of Evolutionary Psychology (EP) and the principle question; “If natural selection drives changes in physical features then shouldn’t it also shape the evolution of humans’ brains and thus behaviour? Although evil is not the preferred path for humans, we routinely do bad and heinous things. The EP point of view suggests that perhaps this has arisen from some neurological misfire that occurred in our biological past. Furthermore, the force which drives us to commit evil, is simply an act of survival and our brains and nervous systems are biologically stuck in the past while our social systems and cultural world had evolved at breakneck pace”.

Other scientists such as Edward Wilson and Richard Dawkins in the field of sociobiology even go so far as to state that this struggle for survival has made 'aggression' a positive, and after all “we are survival machines guided by selfish genes”. While the debates around cultural (memetic) and biological evolution are complex, the simple idea of “us all being capable of evil and possibly biologically programmed to commit it” is certainly an interesting idea isn’t it?

Studies on psychopaths and people with antisocial personality disorder also bring up ideas of their disposition being a ‘wiring’ issue. While these people are described in Robert Hare’s psychopathy checklist as having certain qualities such as a profound disquieting boredom, lack of empathy, remorse and guilt, they are also described as rational, having a strong need for stimulation and superficial charm. These qualities make them great “social cheaters,” and Hart explains “it makes sense in terms of evolutionary drives for socially disadvantaged to employ deception, manipulation and even violence to obtain resources and access to reproductive opportunities”.

…and so “in every man, of course, a demon lies hidden” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky